Robo-debt program to be expanded

Pensioners could be the next group to be in the firing line with confirmation that Centrelink’s robo-debt recovery program will be expanded from 1 July 2017.

In an expansion of the program, which the Department of Human Services believes will raise close to $1 billion, Centrelink will cross reference information it holds on interest earned and asset values with details received from the Australian Tax Office (ATO).

Representatives from the Department of Human Services confirmed to the Senate inquiry in the ‘robo-debt debacle’ that the program will raise a total of $980 million over three years once the expansion of the program is in place. However, in good news for pensioners, it also confirmed that any discrepancies would be manually checked, hopefully avoiding unnecessary debt collection notices being sent to pension recipients.

After the Senate inquiry, committee member and Labor senator Murray Watt called for the program to be paused. “No one has been able to convince this inquiry that this system has been running so smoothly that we aren’t going to see a whole bunch of new problems emerge on July 1 with this expansion, with a particularly vulnerable group of Australians being older people,” he said.

At the height of the program, which to date has raised $70 million more than expected, Centrelink was sending 20,000 letters a week. Due to postal constraints, this has been reduced to 10,000. During the inquiry, the Department of Human Services conceded that it was difficult to know when exactly during the financial year people has been employed as the ATO records used to cross match data didn’t have such details.

The full report into the robo-debt recovery program is expected to be released in June.



Opinion: Let’s hope lessons have been learned

The expansion of Centrelink’s robo-debt recovery program is likely to have many pensioners worried, but hopefully the addition of crosschecking the details will prevent any further debacle.

From day one Centrelink’s robo-debt recovery program was flawed from the humanitarian view point. Data-matching information from two systems that hold a different scope of detail could only result in discrepancies. That such discrepancies could be over a period of five years and that it was up to the individuals to provide clarification in such a short space of time, over a busy Christmas period no less, was simply asking too much of a system that had not been fully tested.

It seems, however, that lessons have indeed been learned and the next phase of the program, which will cross reference income earned and asset values, will at least have any discrepancies checked by a human. This isn’t to say that a human won’t make errors, but it is a step in the right direction.

With just over a month until the expansion of the program commences, it may be worthwhile checking that the information held by Centrelink is indeed correct.

What do you think? Do you think the program should be expanded? Do you think pensioners will be wrongly targeted or does the inclusion of cross checking of discrepancies by a human give you some comfort? 


Related articles:
Ombudsman slams debt-recovery program
Robo-debt Senate inquiry starts

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